Ash Sutton seeks to break free at Croft
A busy six week period for the British Touring Car Championship kicks off this weekend at Croft, with the North Yorkshire circuit hosting round seven of the campaign as the race for the 2021 title intensifies.
Croft will be the first of back-to-back meetings with Silverstone before the series heads for Donington Park early next month, and then on to Brands Hatch for the grand finale – which this year will be back on the longer Grand Prix layout.
Heading into the weekend, Ash Sutton remains the man to beat at the top of the standings as he seeks to successfully defend the championship he won last year, with the Laser Tools Racing driver having snared his fourth win of the year last time out at Thruxton.
Sutton has a strong record at Croft having taken four wins, although the last of those came back in 2018 when he did the double in his Subaru Levorg.
The Infiniti Q50 was a solid performer at Croft last year, although Sutton will be keen to avoid a repeat of the clash with Jake Hill that almost derailed his challenge.
Despite losing ground to his rival at Thruxton, Tom Ingram continues to lead the chasing pack in his EXCELR8-run Hyundai but has now slipped 30 points behind the championship pacesetter.
Ingram has multiple podium finishes at Croft including a win twelve months ago, which capped an impressive recovery from qualifying – where he had set the best time before being excluded from the results for failing the ride height test.
Another win this weekend would be well timed to add to those Ingram has already taken this year with his new team, although he admits there is a need to also be cautious given the quick turnaround before Silverstone.
“With the weight we are carrying on the car, this is another weekend where our best chance of success is probably going to come in races two and three, so that is what we have to work towards,” he admits.
“I’d say that Croft is probably one of my favourite circuits on the calendar and it’s one where we tested with the car prior to the season starting, which is going to help us in terms of set-up. At the two other circuits where we ran during pre-season – Snetterton and Brands Hatch – we then went on to win, so it would be good if we could repeat that this weekend.
“We need to get a good haul of points to keep the pressure on Ash in the standings.”
Another win at Thruxton helped Josh Cook to move up to third in the standings, with the BTC Racing driver only seven points behind Ingram going into the weekend.
Whilst Ingram won race three last year, the other two victories went to Cook’s Honda Civic Type R and a similar results this time around would leave Cook firmly in the mix for the title heading into the final three rounds.
It’s a similar story for Jake Hill, who is just two points behind Cook after scoring a fourth podium of the season at Thruxton last time out in his Ford Focus.
The MB Motorsport driver had his strongest weekend of the year at Croft last season thanks to a brace of podium finishes, and he will be keen to ecure a top three finish at least to maintain his own challenge.
“I’m really looking forward to getting on track at Croft,” he said. “We were on the podium twice last year in the Civic and we made good use of pre-season testing here earlier this year so I’m feeling good heading into the weekend.
“The championship battle is tight but I’m taking it race by race, round by round. This weekend is the start of a double-header for all of us so the aim is to make it a good one and carry that through to Silverstone.”
Hill – as well as Cook and Ingram for that matter – will have one eye looking over his shoulder in what is becoming an increasingly tight fight behind Sutton, with Colin Turkington breathing down their neck in fifth spot.
The ‘King of Croft’ has taken a dozen wins at the circuit in the past, meaning he alone accounts for more than 17% per cent of victories since the Croft debuted on the schedule.
Crucially, Turkington will carry less weight into the weekend than would normally be the case and the Northern Irishman will seek to make the most of that on what is set to be a big weekend for West Surrey Racing as the BMW squad takes part in its 700th BTCC race.
“Anyone can see how competitive the field is this season and there are easily ten or more drivers that could hammer home a strong weekend,” he said.
“I’m certainly not resting on my laurels but it’s an inspiring prospect. This is my time to make strides towards the top and I’ve been doing everything in my power to ensure I prepare to the maximum. This is another opportunity to cash in on our position in the championship and turn up the heat.
“There are a lot of points up for grabs over the next twelve races and I’m feeling confident the luck will swing back in my favour. You only need one point over the others by the end, and we’ll be fighting hard all the way to then.”
Adam Morgan holds sixth on the back of his first win since switching to the BMW 330i M Sport over the winter ahead of a tight battle for seventh – with just five points covering Rory Butcher, Dan Rowbottom, Gordon Shedden and Senna Proctor.
Shedden is the only one of the quartet – surprisingly – yet to win this season and the Scot will hope to put that right, particularly given he will be running with little in the way of success ballast going into the weekend.
The likes of Stephen Jelley, Tom Oliphant, Jason Plato and Chris Smiley will all be totally ballast free and have the pace to fight at the sharp end of the field, meaning this weekend could yet prove to be one of the most open so far in another season packed with twists and turns.